January – Costa Rica

The traditional way of transporting coffee.

People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results ~ Albert Einstein

The Plan: To make hand-carved antique ox carts in the artist colony of Sarchi and paint them using Costa Rican techniques.

My friend Verity got a sewing machine for her 26th birthday. It struck me as a rather odd gift to receive for someone of our generation. But she loved it. She’s made all sorts on that thing – clothes, children’s toys, Santa sacks. In a world where we can pay for the convenience of having just about anything done by someone else, the list of lost arts is growing daily. Still, there is something rewarding about making something yourself, and by hand. You only have to look at a child coming out of a kindergarten with a drawing or a painting to proudly show off to their mum or dad to see that. Unfortunately the closest most of us get to creating something with our hands these days is putting together a piece of furniture from IKEA. Not so in Sarchi, Costa Rica. There they have maintained the tradition of manufacturing hand-crafted ox carts, once used to transport coffee beans to the coast for export. Highly ornate, these ox carts are elegantly craved and are usually painted in bright colours.

Fast facts:

-The original ox carts were rough-hewn, rectangular, cane framed vehicles that were covered with rawhide tarps to offer protection from the elements.

-Ox carts were originally used to transport coffee from inland Costa Rica to the sea for export. Drivers, known as boyeros, and their crews would travel along treacherous terrain for no less than 10 to 15 days in good weather. When the railroad became a more reliable means of transportation, coffee growers ceased using ox carts.

-Tradition says that Trinidad Arguedaz Saens, married to Fructuoso Barrantes Aguilar, a cart maker in San Ramón, decided to paint her husband’s cart wheels with a geometric starburst design in bright black and white colours.

-Overnight, the aged “carretas” became a natural canvas waiting for artists to paint and improvise.

-Sarchi continues to make these decorated wooden “carretas”

-Annual contests are held to find the best and most decorated ox cart.

-Ox carts are now made with rare hardwoods from the nation’s forests.



  1. Víctor Barrantes says:

    The version of Fructuoso Barrantes on the origin of the Costa Rican oxcart seems to be the most entrenched and accepted until today. His wife was in Trinidad Arguedas who started this beautiful tradition of decorated Rican oxcart.